3D printing has advanced quickly. We’ve even been using in an effort to produce affordable homes in Johannesburg. Just like this. But houses aren’t bikes, they don’t need to have the perfect balance between rigidity and flexibility. 3D homes are built using a material called lavacrete, a polymer concrete that, and I’m just guessing this, doesn’t work great for CX bikes.
So the same methods don’t work for the bike industry. But with the right materials can it be done? Absolutely, in fact Arevo already has. The Superstrata is custom made for each rider’s size using a single pass. This means that everything 3D printed is a single piece with the componentry attached later. It’s more than just a gimmick too, 3D printing bikes like this offers some serious manufacturing benefits, including cost reduction, lead times and carbon cost.
So if it definitely works then why are more companies not using it? A lot of that is to do with mistrust. 3D printed products are often still viewed as a novelty or a toy, but the potential is there for it to be so much more than that.
With the right structure and materials 3D printing can produce high quality bikes at a fraction of the cost. In carbon fibre bikes it removes the need for moulds and time intensive laying procedures. It just requires an investment in a 3D printer and then a company can print whatever bike they need. That’s right, 3D printed bikes can be printed faster and cheaper than a traditional CF bike.
How Are Carbon Fibre Frames Usually Made?
If we look at monocoque manufacturing in CF bikes we have a very time intensive process. First pre-preg carbon is cut and placed into a specific orientation in a mould. The Alfa road frame by Allied Cycle Works uses 326 pieces of carbon in its frame and another 170 in the fork. All of these pieces need to be layered in the mould in a specific order and it’s done by hand. The bike must then be compressed from within the tubes, “debulked” and cured before it’s ready for the finishing touches.
This is a lengthy process with each frame taking multiple days of labour, even in well staffed facilities. Using 3D printing means just setting the specifications for the frame and hit print. This drastically reduces the amount of labour required and speeds the whole process up, letting smaller companies produce more bikes at a lower cost and quicker.
The cost of labour associated with the current manufacturing processes is also a major contributing factor to the outsourcing of production to Asian manufacturers. As we’ve become very keenly aware, this has led to supply chain issues and more importantly prevents the industry from going green in a meaningful way. As an industry we ship millions of products around the world annually, increasing our carbon footprint.
Removing the labour costs allows the industry to grow domestically. Once bikes are produced locally instead of internationally the carbon footprint drops significantly along with the lead times. Bikes don’t need to ship halfway around the world or go through customs. It really is that simple.
The Problems With Moulds
Another problem that drives the cost of CF manufacturing up is the cost of producing moulds. Moulds tend to be produced of milled steel or aluminium and each design needs a new mould, and within each design another mould is needed for each size. The cost quickly rises even with only a few basic designs and sizing options.
The other side of it is that it restricts the range that is financially viable, narrowing your customer base or forcing them to make compromises in their purchase. This just isn’t an issue with 3D printed designs. A new size is simply a new set of parameters on the printer. The even better news? Investing in a 3D printer isn’t that much more expensive than the moulds for a single design.
Arevo’s E-bike retails at $4000, which isn’t a bad price considering you get an e-bike that is custom built to fit you. It’s on the higher end sure, but it’s a high end bike. It could be lower too. I don’t know the cost of manufacture so I wont comment on this bike. One of the biggest benefits of a 3D printed bike is the cheaper production costs though, so why not pass those savings on to the customer?
After all the product is a CF bike made in a short amount of time without the need to ever purchase- a very expensive- mould. So instead of working at a premium price, why not bring the price of high end e-bikes down and make them more accessible to riders. Expand the market.
There is another option to single pass printing too. Modular design. Rather than printing the entire piece in one go, a company can print each individual piece and then assemble them later. This comes with a number of advantages.
It allows for more margin of error. With single pass printing human error costs a whole bike’s worth of production while with a modular design another piece can be printed relatively cheap and quick. This ties into another benefit, a modular design is easier to repair. If anything happens to a customer’s bike then it can be swapped out quickly. You might be able to repair the single pass bike too, but it’s nowhere near as easy.
The Case For Single Pass
There’s downsides to modular design too. For one it’s not as easy to customise for each individual rider. It’s still a lot more flexible than traditional methods. You still wont find it as simple as just putting some numbers in a machine and getting the perfect fit. The other downside is that the joints present a stress point. It’s much easier for the bike to break in these parts. A single pass bike will be more durable but harder to repair.
One more advantage of 3D printing is its carbon cost. 3D printed bikes are much more eco friendly to produce. There’s a few reasons for this, we’ve mentioned some already, not needing to use moulds takes out a whole step in the production process and the carbon cost of the moulds themselves is gone too.
A bigger factor though is that 3D printing is less labour intensive one person can produce multiple bikes in quick succession. This allows for the use of lights off facilities producing bikes with a skeleton staff. These facilities take much less power to keep running.
Domestic production also becomes much easier if we swap to 3D printing. This means that there is very little reliance on international shipping, hugely reducing the carbon cost of the industry with the added benefit of taking pressure off the already existing supply chain issues.
We’ve talked before about whether the E-bike industry is really green.
3D printing could very well be the future of the E-bike industry. Helping to solve environmental and supply chain issues while reducing the cost of production for manufacturers and consumers. It simplifies the production of e-bikes, allowing them to be produced quickly and domestically. Whether manufactured in single pass or modularly it can produce a high quality and sturdy bike, A bike that is much easier to customise for white label services or for customers getting a custom made bike. It’s time that manufacturers start to look at 3D printing as more than just a gimmick but instead look at it as an innovation. One that can bring the industry forward benefiting everyone involved from consumer to producer.
If you want to see just what a 3D printed bike can do for yourself then check out our rapid prototyping service